Last year, I moved my family to Israel and taught for a semester at the University of Tel Aviv. As a five-time founder, and after 20 years in venture capital, I thought I knew a lot about successful entrepreneurship -- after all, I am a tenured professor of entrepreneurship at Canada's version of Babson College, Ryerson University -- but this trip taught me so much more.

I had traveled to Israel many times before, but the last time was an academic tour of the "Startup Nation." I give Israel this nickname because Israeli entrepreneurs have created more than two dozen billion-dollar startups, including WeWork, Fiverr, Outbrain, Magic Leap, Houzz, Waze, Mobileye, and Gett. For this sojourn, I wanted to immerse myself in the entrepreneurial culture, to see what I could take home and share when I mentor Ryerson Future's portfolio of seed-stage startups. To enhance the experience, I volunteered at Techstars Tel Aviv, which is focused on fintech. Before I share, just to be clear, I'm discussing only my own experiences with the Israeli entrepreneurs with whom I interacted. I am not making generalizations about the Israeli people as a whole. Keeping that in mind, here is what I took away:

1. No jacket required.

In Israel it is what you do, not what you wear, that matters. Shorts were common business attire even in the most important meetings. Israelis have little to no deference to formality. Instead they look at the outcomes of effort: the results. Everything else is a luxury the Israeli founders don't seem to have time for.

2. Politeness is redundant.

Israelis are infamous for being direct, no BS people. There is very little sugar coating among Israelis, and they call it like they see it. Some perceive the Israeli approach as prickly. But in my experience, the lack of politeness in dialogue drives efficiency and removes vagueness. My peers assumed I already knew they liked me (otherwise they would not be working with me), so why obfuscate communication with flowery niceties?  Because they liked me, I desired only direct feedback, not subtle suggestions.

3. Be bold in risk-taking.

With little oil, natural gas, or other key natural resources, Israelis emphasize mental effort as their key resource. But it isn't just about hard work. It is about big ideas and bold risk-taking. The Israelis I worked with saw bold risk-taking as a winning strategy, not something to be mitigated. They did not avoid risks -- just the opposite. Israeli founders acknowledged the risks, doubled down on addressing them, and converted them into a defensible competitive position.

4. Get it done.

Startups rarely have the resources they need. Israeli startups are no different. But Israeli founders see that as an opportunity to hack together a solution that's just strong enough to test. In doing so they embrace a fundamental tenet of successful entrepreneurship: turning limitations into opportunities. No matter the task, the expectation among Israeli founders is to find a way to get it done, with or without a budget or resources.

5. Urgency is the norm.

At a networking event I attended, I commented that "I'd like to learn more about the opportunity" to a particular startup founder, and suggested a further meeting. The next day, the founder showed up in my lobby. The Israelis that I dealt with not only had a sense of urgency; they acted on it regularly and unapologetically. 

6. Be bold in your opinions.

In an Israeli startup, when (not if) you see something you don't like, or you think something can be done better, you're encouraged to speak up and say so. It does not matter if you are a co-founder or a low-level coder -- you have an obligation to share your opinion.

7. Don't be afraid to fight.

In Israel, arguing is an art form. While many American entrepreneurs try to mitigate confrontation, just as many Canadian entrepreneurs apologize instead of engaging, Israeli entrepreneurs like to argue. They embrace the idea that through friction, diamonds are created. But these arguments tend to be bounded and rational. Once all sides have been heard, the entrepreneurs I worked with settled any argument with a data-driven test. The winner was whoever had their position validated by objective data.

I thought I knew a lot about entrepreneurship. But by immersing myself deep in the entrepreneurial culture of Israel, I learned several new mindsets that changed how I do business, and the same can be true for you.

Published on: Sep 25, 2018